This essay is the product of a university system, one that discovers your presence at the beginning of each semester’s billing cycle, pairs you off with a few babysitters, and decides that your work is not offensive enough to directly rebuff — the least they could offer is the seeking of mediocrity! But no: Instead, the administration seeks to whitewash terrible taste, scouring poor performance into manageable grade point averages. These colleges define success by adherence: the class is told to listen to the lectures, absorbing the little bits and pieces of mundanity that might turn up on the next quiz, and then produce three short papers and one larger term paper. You can almost feel the dull hum of the production line!
The educator is a trainer, but not of flexible, agile minds, but of Minimum Viable Product workmanship. How revealing it is that Silicon Valley’s curse of incompleted work would also weigh down higher education like a wet blanket, perpetuating an organization that rewards bottom line quantifiables over qualitative merits — and don’t even speak about creativity!
The writing style is rigid, repetitive, overly careful. Mincing words, the thesis is but a mouse meandering the bramble rot of institutional disinterest. Search for the word “become”, then become bored yourself. Why showcase the work of undergraduate drivel? It is because I not only want to post warts and all onto this blog, but also to understand myself as a changing body and mind, ready to reflect and improve on travesties. For this essay is a disaster — but could you guess what grade it received after submission? The only grade that can embarrass higher education, educators, and students alike!
I wrote this around mid-November of 2015 in Gainesville, Florida, for the University of Florida. I hope that 2015 - and most likely the years preceding - would be the dark era of my writing. And by 2025, I hope that all years preceding would again be that of brittle stone striking diamond!
When considering novels such as the Chinese spiritual comedy “Journey to the West”, thematic imagery involved must be considered on multiple levels. The first level would be the most literal one: the plot of the Tang court’s exemplary Buddhist monk Tripitaka and his journey with three unruly disciples, battling monsters and helping innocent people along the way. A second level would go beyond the literal storyline, depicting the spiritual allegory that the monk, disciples, people, and monsters all represent. A third level would be the universal messages that spiritual allegory and plot may represent: lessons that any reader may take from Tripitaka’s 100-chapter journey. To explore these three levels of plot, religious allegory, and thematic message, this paper will explore the stomach, a unique object within the universe of “Journey to the West.”
The stomach is the object used for plot devices, spiritual derision, and overtly didactic teachings by the novel’s author. The stomach is shown to be a device of distraction and corruption throughout Tripitaka’s inner and external journey to self-cultivation. The lazy and hungry disciple Eight Rules, whose origins are derived from his nutritional and sexual gluttony, consistently pushes Tripitaka to focus on the stomach, repetitiously leading to the Tang monk’s capture by monster-demons. Monkey, the primary disciple, manipulates the stomachs of both Eight Rules and monsters to solve the group’s various quandaries. The novel thematically depicts the excess that is looked down upon in the Buddhist, Daoist, and Chinese profane realms: the stomach is found to be a disruptive force in Buddhist enlightenment, Daoist inner alchemy, and normal human lives. The general negativity surrounding the concept of the stomach and the various levels of its symbolical significance warrants an in-depth analysis into its role within the novel’s world.
Little exists about the stomach within present discourse on “Journey to the West”, but some thematic qualities such as the significance of the Heart Sutra and the corresponding one-ness of Tripitaka, Monkey, Eight Rules, and Sha Monk are informed by various scholars. Devin M. Garofalo and Manuel Herrero-Puertas surmise that the Heart Sutra enables Nirvana through negation of earthly objects and concepts. However, if the sutra states that earthly objects should not be considered, then their metaphysical structures should. Thus, some scholars have found Tripitaka’s three disciples to be allegorical manifestations of the Tang monk’s inner psyche. Robert E. Adams provides background information on Tripitaka’s disciples, depicting Eight Rules as an antithesis to Monkey, with Monkey as the mind and Eight Rules as the flesh: “In some Buddhist allegory, the pig’s skill at rooting in the earth is equated to the power of rooting out the ego . . .” With this statement, Adams expands the spiritual and thematic interdependence between mind and flesh — Eight Rules enables the plot to necessitate Monkey’s powerful yet irreverent actions. Ryan Bradeen and Jean Johnson further corroborate this thinking by constructing the overall journey as an allegory for human nature, elaborating that Monkey is the “mind that must be controlled”, Eight Rules representing the “mundane human desires for food, sex, and other pleasures” and Sha Monk the quiet compassion, all three virtues of which are needed for a well-balanced person.
Anthony C. Yu delves deeper into this dynamic of control and release between the sutra, Tripitaka, and Monkey, which can be integrated into the narrative of the stomach. According to Yu, the Heart Sutra is personified by Monkey, who continually reminds Tripitaka of the Buddhist teaching during challenging times, powering him along when he is about to quit — thus a strong mind is required for successful self-cultivation. However, Monkey is himself a paradox — required to be controlled by a golden ribbon around his head (releasing the band would lead to Monkey’s immediate escape), Tripitaka’s greatest asset is also a controlled chaos. He must first control the mind before the material — the stomach — could ever be tamed. This paradox is the defining nature of the stomach: it is an earthly object that is a necessity for Tripitaka’s existence, but must also be controlled so as to avoid spiritual diversion.
Buddhist themes derived from the Heart Sutra — including assertions of a singularity or “emptiness” in all things — strengthens the stomach’s literary significance. In chapter forty-three, Monkey explains to Tripitaka that he continues to misunderstand the Heart Sutra: the Tang monk’s use of the six sense organs — including the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind — are inviting the so-called Six Robbers to divert the group from acquiring the Buddhist scriptures and thus achieving enlightenment. In other words, the various characters, from Monkey to Eight Rules to monsters to humans are constructed Buddhist obstacles created by Tripitaka’s earthly fears and desires. This theory becomes realized by the end of the novel in chapter ninety-eight when Tripitaka sheds his mortal body and Monkey points out that the Tang monk and his disciples were all interdependent on one another to accomplish this spiritual journey. This establishment in singularity between all characters helps better understand the stomach represented in multiple forms of obstacles in the way of Tripitaka’s success.
An exploration of the stomach within the three contexts of plot, spiritual allegory, and secular thematicism will open up new discussion of the novel’s multifaceted use of symbols. By searching through examples in which the stomach and its resulting counterpart, hunger and consumption, are involved, a narrative begins to form around Tripitaka’s spiritual journey as a means to quell the senses and bodily organs to reach Nirvana. A transformation occurs for all the characters in the novel: the disciples become sense organs, the monster-spirits become vehicles for Buddhist and Daoist idealisms regarding earthly desires, and humans become parables of overconsumption. The stomach may not be a central concept of “Journey to the West” but its role as a repeated motif allow for a better understanding of Buddhist, Daoist, and secular views on food and consumption.
As a plot device, the stomach has been found to cause many trials and tribulations throughout Tripitaka’s journey. These situations are typically instigated by Eight Rules in the absence of the Mind Monkey. This highlights the pig’s relevance with hunger and consumption, especially in chapter twenty-eight, during which his desire for food leads the group to the Old Monster Yellow Robe who commences an extended kidnapping that requires the return of Monkey. This circumstance is caused by Tripitaka’s prior banishment of Monkey for having seemingly murdered three innocent people. Without Monkey, the slothfulness of Eight Rules takes over, leaving Tripitaka waiting for food while the pig takes a nap. The imbalance of power between Monkey and Eight Rules during this chapter leads to Tripitaka’s hunger overcoming his virtues: he wanders on his own to a specious monastery and is captured by the Old Monster Yellow Robe, who plans on devouring the monk. This connection between Tripitaka’s hunger and the monster-spirit’s own desire for the monk’s flesh become parallel, and both lead to their defeat. Monkey and the Mind comes to save the Tang monk from his capture and defeats the monster. When Tripitaka again becomes hungry in chapter fifty, Monkey plans to use his magic powers to find some food and instructs the Tang monk to stay within a circle drawn in the ground, citing its protective powers. After Monkey runs into trouble finding food, the group is again without the Mind and Eight Rules in his hunger-derived impatience pushes Tripitaka to leave the circle, which ultimately leads to another faked monastery where the Great King One-Horned Buffalo captures the monks and plans on eating them. Repeated themes such as Monkey’s absence, Tripitaka’s hunger, Eight Rules’ exacerbation of the situation and the subsequent capture by a hungry demon can all be connected within the narrative of human nature’s desire for earthly objects inevitably leading to their downfall.
The Great King One-Horned Buffalo becomes elevated from a plot device to Buddhist allegory when he and Monkey fight over Tripitaka’s life. Monkey approaches Buddha Tathagata for aid in subduing the Great King One-Horned Buffalo, who had successfully defeated wave after wave of Heavenly soldiers with his powerful fillet that has the capability to seize any weapon. Pilgrim asks the Buddha “to survey the world and find out what is the true origin of this creature”. Once Tathagata discovers the monster’s origin, one of his arhats inform Pilgrim that the Great King One-Horned Buffalo is in fact a buffalo of Laozi’s; the Daoist deity swiftly comes down from Heaven to subdue the monster-spirit. It should not be considered coincidental that Tathagata’s knowledge of a creature’s origin is as effective in subduing demons as Pilgrim’s act of entering their stomachs. This type of situation occurs as early as chapter fifty-nine, during which Pilgrim enters the female monster-spirit Raksasi’s stomach to retrieve the Palm-Leaf Fan in order to extinguish the Mountain of Flames. The second occurrence is in chapter sixty-six, in which the Buddhist Patriarch Maitreya instructs Pilgrim to enter the stomach of a Buddha-disguised monster of Little Thunderclap to subdue the creature. This situational framework of exploiting the stomach represents Pilgrim’s finding of the monster-spirit’s thematic “origin”, or their source of motivation, which is typically to consume Tripitaka. Assuming this perspective, Pilgrim’s process of subduing the monster-spirits by finding their desires can be paralleled with the Buddhist goal of subduing their own humanly desires.
As a Daoist allegory, the stomach is a warning against external alchemy: within chapters forty-five and forty-six, three false Daoist priests are characterized by their willingness to consume “holy water” in order to achieve immortality (though it turns out to be the three Buddhist disciples’ pee). Throughout the novel, attaining immortality and self-cultivation through external means, or “external alchemy”, are looked down upon and considered a spiritual “shortcut” compared to inner alchemy practiced by Monkey. A poem after the three Daoists’ defeat summarizes the issues of external alchemy: “To touch gold, to smelt lead — of what use are they? To summon wind, to beckon rain — still all is vain!” When external alchemy and heterodoxy is exhibited by foes within the novel, Monkey is commonly able turn them into weaknesses for their submission. When the three Daoist priests attempt to compete with Monkey to exhibit the merits of their external alchemy, each one dies as they cannot match Monkey’s cultivation through inner alchemy. The novel’s derision of external alchemy, such as tricking the Daoists that pee is holy water, or relating external alchemy to heterodoxy point to the ideal that perfected spiritual cultivation is ultimately achieved from inside the mind and body; the stomach can only lead to external and spiritual disaster.
Finally, the stomach is found within the profane realm of humanity: the overconsumption of kings and nobles typically incur unfortunate situations for those involved, especially for Tripitaka and his disciples. In chapter ninety-six Squire Kou’s conspicuous consumption of food and leisure in order to impress Tripitaka and others as a host leads to robbers noticing his vast wealth and ultimately the squire’s death. A similar situation occurs in chapter ninety-one during which Tripitaka’s observance of the Gold-Level Prefecture’s excessive Lantern Festival leads to his worshipping of false Buddhas. Both of these situations highlight two issues of earthly consumption: its relation with slothfulness and calamity. Tripitaka’s bowing to specious Buddhas highlight this concept: he is worshipping earthly comforts instead of Tathagata. A poem at the end of chapter ninety-one summarizes this line of thinking: “Shiftless and slothful, Chan nature’s confused; Fated for dangers, the mind of Dao’s obscured”. Squire Kou’s death was fated due to his external prosperity, as well as Tripitaka’s jailing and torture due to his partaking of this prosperity. Tripitaka is forced to learn that personal and spiritual cultivation can only come by the moderate and modest consumption of profane foods and other objects.
From the self-inflicted harm that Eight Rules and Tripitaka occur by following their hunger rather than their wisdom, to the hunger-based motivations of monster-demons and the calamity that villages and individuals experience in the face of overconsumption, “Journey to the West” explores the spiritual and secular issues of partaking in earthly pleasures through the bodily organ of the stomach. The stomach is the breeding ground for material attachment: Eight Rules exemplifies this with his impatience for sustenance, clothing and women, all leading Tripitaka to his continual capture by monsters. The monsters’ consistent desire for Tripitaka’s flesh becomes the visual symbol of the ugliness of human desire in comparison to the perfected beauty of Buddhist teachings of which Monkey utilizes to defeat them. The novel proselytizes that external aid can only lead to disaster as normal humans commonly face death and suffering after displaying their prosperity and comforts to Tripitaka, robbers, or monsters.
The exploration of the stomach as a catalyst of evil and subsequently its submission within “Journey to the West” is to discover how the novel aestheticizes its religious and secular teachings. Pilgrim’s many reminders to Tripitaka that a Buddhist monk should not be concerned with their hunger becomes significant as the group’s enemies become increasingly motivated to eat the Tang Monk. As a result, the novel expands upon Tripitaka’s human weaknesses and turns them into allegories in the form of monster-spirits to represent concepts such as the six senses that a Buddhist monk must quell to achieve Nirvana. After discovering the motivation of most monsters to be hiding within the symbol of the stomach, Monkey becomes noticeably more adept at subduing these monsters by identifying their common desire for food. By extension, Tripitaka’s spiritual development coincides with his taming of his hunger and also Eight Rules. Buddhism, Daoism and Chinese parables symbolically intertwine and culminate in the stomach, a surprisingly multifaceted object within the symbol-rich universe of “Journey to the West.”